telefon kharban/broken telephone | Jood AlThukair

on the drive back home      i ask if the moon is following us      an eyelash on my cheek my mother      tells me to make a wish      the moon isn’t following us      we’re circling around it      at five i drank tea from a saucer so      i don’t stay up at night      my palms orange henna an empty quarter      all heat and sunlight      my grandmother makes a phone call      the line is breaking      i ask for more tea      palms spread open      malleable bones of milk and ground cardamom

a beehive sits on the lamppost at their house      my mother tells me not to wear perfume      so they don’t sting      she brushes my hair      coconut oil drowning in      my scalp every time she adds      it sucks it away      she is still trying to understand      my hands fresh of henna      i could not smell the sweetness      yet every time it bounces out      stubborn and coily      like the moon      my mother tells me regardless

the landline still breaks when      my grandfather asks      if i want to harvest his pomegranates      i think the phone is broken      i say in fragments      later he lifts me to pull a yellowed      one but inside all blood and ruby      for a second i could not      tell if i had transcended      to the sky      or if his arms are too long      mashallah      he tells me      you picked one true to your name      generous and plentiful      its pearls stuck between      the gaps of my teeth      implanted like fake ones but i thought      the more the merrier

my heart is a compass      so i saw right above the border      my grandfather always said khashooga      not gafsha      not mil3aga      so then i had to look farther up      my tongue is fluid      a mixture of sounds from      where my ancestors had slept      my grandmother lifts me to her lap      belly rolls like unbaked dough      sit right under my chest      she voices fairouz      o, um sulayman      where has your husband been?      he is by the field      plucking peach and pomegranate      the phone rings      the line still breaks      i ask if the moon is following us      the moon follows you      it circles around you


Notes: telefon kharban (broken telephone) is a playground game renowned in the Gulf Region of the Middle East. Children would sit in a circle, whisper a phrase to the person to their right, and it would move around until it reaches the first person again. The phrase will almost always be distorted at the end.

  • like the moon / my mother tells me regardless: the term مثل القمر or زي القمر translates to “like the moon”. In Arabic, it means the addressee looks as beautiful as the moon. The moon has always been a centering theme in Arab culture, especially due to the use of our lunar calendar.
  • khashooga: spoon in the Iraqi dialect. Because I am based in Saudi Arabia, “my heart is a compass / so i saw right above the border” meant Kuwait–where my mother had resided. My father, however, was in Iraq, which is why I said, “so then i had to look farther up,” considering my geographic location. Iraq stood above Kuwait from my location.
  • gafsha: spoon in the Kuwaiti dialect.
  • mil3aga: spoon in the Saudi dialect. The “3” or “ع” is a voiced pharyngeal fricative sound.

Jood AlThukair is a writer and editor-in-chief of Sumou, an online magazine for creative youth. Based in Saudi Arabia, she oscillates between writing and making art all while plucking pomegranates, juggling academia, and fighting for decolonization. Find her on Instagram: @jusqu.a or Twitter: @joodthu.

Vagabond City Literary Journal

Founded in 2013, we are a literary journal dedicated to publishing outsider literature. We publish art, poetry, and creative nonfiction from marginalized creators.